Writer Evan Thomas's perceptive analysis of the 34th president shows a shrewd operator who played his cards close to the vest.
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The president who has had, perhaps, the most surprising year is none other than No. 34, Dwight Eisenhower. Continuing a recent reappraisal by historians, Jean Edward Smith published a well-received and largely admiring biography of Eisenhower in February. Now, as another campaign season has just ended, Evan Thomas offers Ike's Bluff, a perceptive analysis of the Republican president’s penchant for combining patience and secrecy to avoid nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
The central premise of Thomas’ book is that the staid 1950s were anything but and, in turn, the grandfatherly, confused Eisenhower was, in fact, a shrewd operator who never let anyone – including his son – know whether he would use nuclear weapons. Maintaining inscrutability allowed Ike to avoid war at a time when the world’s two superpowers flirted with what later came to be known as mutually assured destruction.
Or, as Thomas writes of the man who first found fame leading the D-Day invasion of 1944, “Ike was more comfortable as a soldier, yet his greatest victories were the wars he did not fight.”
Unlike Smith’s biography, Thomas opts against a full life story in favor of his presidency. And the book delves into a narrower topic than just the White House years, as its main emphasis is on foreign policy. Defense spending (it was Eisenhower, of course, who rued the “military-industrial complex,” presciently so), diplomacy, occasional saber-rattling and plenty of CIA miscalculations proliferate.
Equally important, this history charts the personal ups and downs of Eisenhower amid the mounting pressures of nuclear threats. The warm, genial figure the public saw as their president simmered behind the scenes. Eisenhower had a quick-trigger temper and bore a series of ailments while trying to cope with the stresses of the presidency.
As commander-in-chief, Ike endured a heart attack, a stroke, and intestinal surgery during his two terms in office. The effects of international summits and various standoffs with the Soviets and others caused Eisenhower debilitating stomach problems and other sicknesses.
To be sure, Eisenhower was hardly a saint. He lived in a male-dominated world and could be cold to subordinates and family members alike. His dutiful wife, Mamie, once said, “I have one career and his name is Ike.” Still, he loved her and, in many ways, relied on her, as well as on his personal secretary, Ann Whitman.
Ike proved too loyal and was loath to fire anyone. And the charge by many critics that as president he was often absent is at least partially true. Thomas recounts typical workdays of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., followed by a regular informal meeting with secretary of state John Foster Dulles. Eisenhower would indulge in a pre-dinner cocktail and spend his hours after dinner reading Western novels or painting. And, most days, he practiced or played golf, or both.